Tuning mobile notifications with the IRK lists

2 minute read

Our mobile phones are pushed more and more to require our attention. As Tristan Harris points out:

“You could say that it’s my responsibility” to exert self-control when it comes to digital usage, he explains, “but that’s not acknowledging that there’s a thousand people on the other side of the screen whose job is to break down whatever responsibility I can maintain.” In short, we’ve lost control of our relationship with technology because technology has become better at controlling us.
— T. Harris (2016) The Binge Breaker

While the solution must be a systemic solutions, we still can do some small things to get our attention back, without going fully in digital detox. Mind, this doesn’t mean we already have enough control, we don’t. This means trying to find a better spot with the tools we are given.

Here’s an idea that might not seem a big deal, but in practice I found out it works very well for my personal use.

Think about how quickly you want to know things, and how much you want things to interrupt you:

  1. Instant List — list all the apps you DO want notifications instantly when they happen. These are usually very few. I tend to include in this category only private messaging apps (for me: iMessage, Telegram, Snapchat, Whatsapp, …) and service ones (for me: Hailo, Paypal, Memrise, banking apps, …).
  2. Relevant List — list all the apps that you want to be aware of updates, but it’s not important when you see them (for me: Instagram, ).
  3. Kill List — everything else can be turned off entirely. This isn’t a real list, just everything that isn’t in the other two, you can turn it off entirely.

Leave the now list with the notifications as you have normally, fully enabled. Turn off entirely the irrelevant list, no notifications.

Configure the awareness list as follow:

  • Allow Notifications: on.
  • Show in Notification Centre: off.
  • Badge App Icon: on.
  • Show on Lock Screen: off.
  • Alert Style: none.

Notifications, Badge Only

The end result is that you’ll get notifications only for the things you mean to interrupt you, and everything else is still visible at a glance when you have time to pick up the phone, which brings you back in control.

Unfortunately it applies natively only to iOS, as Android doesn’t seem to have notification counters on the app icon. It might be possible to reach the same goal with a custom app however (like this one).

Give it a try.


If you have any other advice or tip, write me :)